At a panel in Berlin this week, nine powerful women including the head of the International Monetary Fund and the American first daughter were on stage, when the moderator asked the German chancellor: “Are you a feminist?” Angela Merkel replied with a pregnant pause. The audience grew restless with cries of “yes, you are, yes, you are,” as the other panelists, one by one, raised their hands. But the chancellor took her time: “The history of feminism is one where there are similarities with me and then there are differences. I would not like to decorate myself with a label I don’t actually have.”
In her ambivalence about feminism, as in so many things, Ms. Merkel is typical of her compatriots. That may surprise people in other Western countries, who generally regard Germany as a beacon of liberal and progressive values. And yet there is no German equivalent of Emma Watson, the British actress and United Nations ambassador for equal rights, who walks around subway stations in New York and other places planting feminist books. There is no German politician quite like Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau professing himself proudly and publicly to be a feminist. When it comes to women’s rights, Germany has followed a different path.
After 1945, when Germany lay in physical and moral ruins, West German society resorted to much older traditions centered around conservative family values and gender roles. Whether reflected in television ads or real life, West German women in the 1950s and 60s were generally in the kitchen or bedroom, but not in the workplace or at large. The backlash, when it started in the 1970s, was embodied by a radical feminist named Alice Schwarzer.
Loud and brash, Ms. Schwarzer advocated – and still does — for abortions and against pornography. Prostitution, to Ms. Schwarzer, is always and only the oppression of women by men. Since 1977, when she started publishing EMMA magazine, she has been the face of feminism to western Germans. As a result, “the public perception of feminism is that it is a movement for lesbians, radicals, for man haters,” Barbara Riedmüller, a professor of social policy at the Free University of Berlin, told Handelsblatt.
East Germany created a different fiction, that of a socialist workers’ paradise. And that included equal opportunity for men and women. The Democratic Women’s League of Germany (DFD), founded on March 8, 1947 – womens’ day – ensured equal education and fair social living conditions. The state built daycare centers and women were expected to return to work after having children. Pay was mandated to be equal. When the East German experiment came to an end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, 91 percent of women were either in the labor market or in training. That same year in West Germany, only 50 percent of women were in the workforce or schooling, according to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a think tank.
That history is part of why women like Ms. Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and took for granted its socialist brand of equal rights, today feel less of a need to identify with feminism. Another aspect is that — after 27 years in politics, 12 of them as chancellor – she has become attuned to the sensitivities of the whole nation, including the west. “If a politician were to come out and say ‘I’m a feminist’, the outrage would be all over the tabloid newspapers. There is simply no way that person can get elected,” said Ms. Riedmüller.
But that’s not to say that Ms. Merkel’s government is legislating against women. Since she became chancellor in 2005, for example, Germany has surpassed France and is closing in on America in the share of women at work (see chart). The current coalition has passed laws that require the largest publicly listed German companies to aim for 30 percent of their supervisory boards to be women. It has reduced unfair deals in insurance. And this January it enacted an equal-pay law. Ultimately, said Ms. Riedmüller, feminist discourse in Germany thus faces the same tension as in other Western countries: Do you fight against the patriarchy from the outside or from within? In Germany, as Ms. Merkel sees it, change has and should come from within the system.
Back at the W20 summit this week, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands finally punctured the awkwardness as Ms. Merkel continued to hem and haw. A feminist, the queen offered, is “someone who wants all women to have the chance to be happy and proud of themselves.” To that the chancellor, visibly relieved, replied: “Then I am one too.” But she still managed to avoid saying the “F” word.
Sabine Devins is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org